Georgia on My Mind

Georgia on My Mind

A Stand-Alone Romance

Since Georgie Quinn’’s mother died after a brief illness, the highlight of Georgie’s life has become “jogger stalking” every morning with her roommates Tess and Cat. Stuck running the senior center her mother founded in Newport, RI, until a replacement director is found, Georgie dreams of returning to her glamorous life in Atlanta. As that life begins to unravel, she discovers a whole new one in Newport where the jogger turns out to be sexy detective and tree hugger Nathan Caldwell. Determined to get her mind off her many problems, —including a possible threat to her own health, —Georgie indulges in what she intends to be a no-holds-barred one-night stand with Nathan. Unfortunately, Nathan has other ideas and sets out to have a relationship with her. Tess, on the run from an abusive husband, and Cat, who raised her younger brother and sister, hook up with Nathan’’s brothers, Ben, an injured Iraqi war veteran, and Ian, a single-father and talented musician. Add a zany cast of seniors who seem determined to drive Georgie slowly mad with their never-ending needs and comparisons to her sainted mother, and you’’ve got the ingredients for a fast-paced, often comical, emotional journey that leads Georgie straight to the home of her heart. Three romances for the price of one!

It’s a rare treat that you get three gorgeous romances in one story but Marie Force has achieved that with Georgia On My Mind. Ms. Force has seamlessly woven these stories into one magical novel. — – Joyfully Reviewed, Recommended Read

 
ISBN
E-Book: 978-0983475460
Print: 978-0615824482
 

Chapter 1

“Hurry up, you guys!” Cat called from the front porch. “He’s coming!”

Her heart thumping, Georgie grabbed a cup of coffee and followed her other roommate, Tess, to the spacious front porch, where Cat made an effort to appear nonchalant. Georgie took her usual place on the wicker sofa for an unobstructed view of the show.

The steady cadence of footsteps on pavement announced his arrival, right on schedule.
Georgie would have taken a sip of her coffee if she could’ve gotten it past the lump of anticipation growing in her throat. How very sad that these thirty seconds will be the highlight of my day. Oh, there he is!

The top of his golden head appeared at the crest of the hill. And . . .oh today he was bare-chested, his shirt tucked into the front of tight running shorts. Sweat ran down between spectacular, tanned pectorals and taut abs, making his light dusting of blond chest hair sparkle in the morning sun. Just the right amount of chest hair. During the final grueling weeks of her mother’s illness, “jogger stalking” with her sister Ali as well as Cat and Tess had given Georgie something to look forward to each morning.

He brushed a hand over his forehead, pushing the dampness into his close-cropped hair.
Georgie swallowed. Hard.

“Mmm,” Tess said, licking her lips.

“You said it,” Cat whispered, perching on the railing for a better view.

The footsteps grew closer, and he jogged past with a smile and a wave. “Morning, ladies.”

“Morning!” Cat and Tess sang in girlish stereo.

Georgie said nothing, mesmerized by his glistening back and the sweat pooling at his waist. The overwhelming desire to lick him clean both horrified and titillated at the same time.

“Utter perfection,” Tess declared when he was out of sight.

“Better than coffee,” Cat said as she did every day. She hopped down from the railing. Wearing fatigues, black flip-flops, and a tank top that showcased her spectacular breasts, she said, “Off I go.”

“You’re going in early today,” Tess said.

“And staying late. I’ve got a new band starting at the club tonight, so I’ll stay for their first set.”

Scowling, she added, “Today, we’re cleaning, and I have a ton of paperwork I’ve been putting off forever.” Cat wore her bright red hair in short spikes that on anyone else would have been harsh.

On her, the effect just added to her over-the-top sex appeal. Her pale complexion, big brown eyes, pierced eyebrow, mermaid tattoo and that amazing body combined to make her the most fearless and fabulous female Georgie had ever met.

“I’ll be late, too,” Tess said. “I’m working a double at the hospital.”

“I don’t know how you keep up that pace,” Cat said, shaking her head.

“I need the money. My ex got everything in the divorce, so I’m starting from scratch.”

“How in the world you let that happen, I’ll never understand,” Cat said with her typical bluntness.

Tess shrugged. “I just wanted to be rid of him.”

“I’m available to kick his ass if need be,” Cat said with a smile. “In fact, nothing would please me more.” Cat and Georgie suspected that Tess’s ex had knocked her around, but they hadn’t yet reached the point in their burgeoning friendship where they felt they could ask her, and Tess wasn’t talking.

As she scooped her long, dark hair into a high ponytail, Tess’s delicate laugh lit up gray-blue eyes that were usually far too drawn and somber for such a young woman. “Where were you when I needed you a year ago?”

“Offer’s on the table,” Cat called as she bounded down the stairs to her Jeep. “See you chicks later.”

After Cat left some rubber at the curb, Tess turned to Georgie. “Earth to Georgie.”

Locked in her sweat-licking fantasy about the mysterious jogger, Georgie looked up to find Tess watching her with amusement. “Yeah?”

“Still nursing that thirty-seconds-a-day crush?”

“I have these insane thoughts about what I’d like to do to him,” Georgie confided in her new friend. The women had been roommates for three months—since just after Georgie’s mother got sick and had to stop working—and had bonded over their shared lust for their jogging neighbor. “I’ve never had such fantasies about a complete stranger.”

“Nothing wrong with that. I think it’s safe to say he’s figuring prominently in all our fantasies these days. I thought Cat was a lesbian until I saw her drooling over him. Saved me the trouble of asking her.”

“I would’ve liked to have been around for that conversation,” Georgie said, smiling as she got up from the wicker sofa and took a sip of her coffee.

“How are you, Georgie? Really.”

“Fine. Busy.”

“Any word from your dad?” Tess asked.

“Nothing. I’m starting to wonder if he’s dead, too. I mean why else would he suddenly stop paying the alimony to my mother?”

“If something had happened to him, surely you or your sister would’ve heard by now.”

Georgie shrugged. “Who knows? It’s not like we’ve been close to him since he left our mother for another woman.”

Tess rested a hand on Georgie’s arm. “I’m sorry you’re having such a crappy time of it.”

“Thanks. I sure hope I can get things cleaned up here pretty soon. I can’t extend the leave of absence from my job indefinitely. At some point, I have to get back to Atlanta and back to work. I’m sure I’ll feel better once I return to some semblance of normalcy.”

“Well, if I’m being selfish,” Tess said, “I hope it’s not too soon. I love living here with you girls. This is just what I needed after the hell of my divorce.”

“I’m glad it’s working out for you. You guys saved me by moving in. There was no way I could swing all the bills for this place and my apartment in Atlanta on what I’m making at the senior center.”

“Still no movement on getting a replacement for your mom?”

“Nope,” Georgie said with a sigh. “Ironically, no one seems to want the headaches that come with the place for the pitiful salary the city is offering. We actually had a live one last week, but once the dirty old men got a hold of her, she ran for her life.”

Tess laughed.

“Yesterday I heard them talking about ‘annual’ sex,” Georgie said with a cringe and a shudder.

Groaning, Tess said, “Please tell me they were talking about once a year and not—”

Georgie held up her hand. “Don’t even say it. The visual is enough to give me nightmares.”

Tess laughed until there were tears in her eyes. “Your mother was a saint.”

“She spoiled those people rotten, that’s for sure. Unfortunately, they’re expecting me to pick right up where she left off. Georgie, can you call Blue Cross for me? Georgie, will you drive me to my doctor’s appointment? Georgie, play Euchre with us. Georgie, what’s for lunch? Georgie, did you book the entertainment for the monthly social? Your mother would have done this, your mother would have done that. It’s no wonder she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. She was so busy taking care of them, she had no time to take care of herself.”

“I so admire that you refuse to let all her hard work and sacrifice be abandoned now that she’s gone.”

“I know it’s the right thing to do, but sometimes I get so scared when I think about how long I’ve been away from my real job.”

“It’ll still be there when you’re ready to go back.”

“I sure hope so. Thanks for the pep talk, Tess. I don’t know what we would’ve done without you and Cat around to help keep us sane the last few months.” The two women answered the ad for temporary roommates Georgie and her mother placed in The Newport Daily News after her father’s alimony payments dried up and the bills for her mother’s large Victorian home began to roll in. Thank God she owned the place free and clear, but the taxes and upkeep were substantial.

Tess folded Georgie into a spontaneous hug that took her by surprise. Tess’s loving support was such a gift in the midst of the chaos Georgie’s life had descended into the last few months.

“Thank you,” Georgie said softly.

“You’re going to get through this. I know you are.”

Georgie nodded. “Since you’re working a double, I guess I’ll see you for jogger stalking tomorrow morning.”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Tess said as she went down the stairs to her car.

Georgie plucked the dead blooms off her mother’s geraniums in the boxes attached to the porch railing and watered the four planters that sat on each of the stairs that led to the street. The three-story white house had black shutters and a bright red front door that matched the geraniums.

As she refilled the watering can and imagined her mother tending to these very plants, Georgie’s eyes flooded once again. She had cried more in the last three months than in the previous thirty years combined. Even more than a week later, it was still a shock to wake up each day and realize once again that her mother was really gone.

With the daily watering done, Georgie went upstairs to shower and get dressed for “work.” Not in one of the sharp suits she wore to Davidson’s, the swank Atlanta department store where she worked in marketing and fashion merchandising. No, here she wore shorts and a T-shirt that would be dirty by noon. She tugged a brush through her shoulder-length dark blonde hair and applied the three-hundred-dollar-a-jar moisturizer she had bought with her store discount. In another week or two, she would have to call someone in Atlanta to send her more. Some things a girl just shouldn’t have to do without.

Georgie studied her face in the mirror. Her hazel eyes were shot through with specs of gold. Her nose was upturned and reportedly cute, a word Georgie hated. Her cheeks were fuller than she preferred, dimpled, and also reportedly cute. She vowed to kill the next person who called her cute. She’d show them cute.

Her cell phone rang, and she dashed across the hall to grab it. “Hello,” she said breathlessly.

“Georgia, when are you coming home?” asked Doug, her boyfriend of two years, for the hundredth time since she had been in Newport.

“Hello to you, too, Doug.”

“Honestly, your mother’s affairs can’t be this complicated, can they? Tell me you’ll be back for the charity ball at the country club on Saturday. I need you with me.”

Sighing, Georgie sat on the bed. “Not looking good, I’m afraid.”

“Can you come for the weekend?”

“I can’t leave the center for that long.”

“Oh come on, Georgia! I need you. I’m getting an award. You know how important this is to me!”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

He was silent for a long moment, which meant he was brooding. “I hate to say this, especially after all you’ve been through recently.”

“Just say it, Doug.”

“This isn’t working. I think we need to see other people.”

It wasn’t like she hadn’t seen it coming. He had been making noise about breaking up for weeks now. “Whatever you want.”

“That’s it? That’s all you have to say?”

“What do you want me to say?”

“I want you to come home.” A sports agent who represented three of the PGA’s top stars, Doug was used to getting what he wanted when he wanted it.

“I can’t. I’ve told you that. If you want to see other people, go right ahead. I can’t stop you.”

“You don’t care at all, do you, Georgia?”

“Not enough,” she said truthfully.

“And that’s always been our problem, hasn’t it?” She pictured him blowing the dust off his little black book even as they spoke. “Take care of yourself. Call me if you ever get back to Atlanta.”
“I will.”

“Good-bye, Georgia.”

“Bye.”

 

Chapter 2
By nine thirty, she was in line for the two dozen donuts and coffee she had learned the hard way to have ready when the old men started arriving at ten. The treats went a long way toward ensuring a good day.

Still smarting from the conversation with Doug, she drove to the senior center on Spring Street and parked her silver Volkswagen Passat in the executive director’s space. With a wistful glance at the Georgia license plate, she felt a sudden urge to kick something—or someone. She should have broken up with Doug months ago, long before he’d had the chance to do the dumping.

She almost died herself—of shock—when he arranged to have her car delivered to Rhode Island when it became clear she would be staying awhile, and then he came to her mother’s funeral. The selfless acts were so far out of character that they had backfired on him by illustrating what was lacking in their relationship the rest of the time.

Life with Doug was all about him—his work, his clients, his life. Georgie had grown weary of meals interrupted by urgent calls from prima donna golfers, weekends spent watching golf on TV, shooting balls at the driving range, or worse yet, attending golf events during which she hardly laid eyes on him.

As she unlocked the center and flipped on the lights, she reasoned that it should have been herdecision to end it with him, but that too had been taken away from her by the events of the past few months.

A whiff of stale air greeted her at the center. From her first day there, she had marveled at how the place smelled like old people. How she longed for the perfumed gentrification of Davidson’s. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, Doug.

As he liked to remind her, he could have any girl he wanted, so she was certain he wouldn’t be on the market for long. She hadn’t planned to marry him—no way. In fact, long after she decided their relationship wasn’t going anywhere, she’d stayed with him because so much of her social life in Atlanta was tied up in him. She had to admit, though, she’d liked the attention he had showered her with—fancy dates, flowers at the office (no doubt arranged by his secretary), spontaneous weekends away with him, his cell phone, and his BlackBerry. But she hated the way he called her Georgia in that snooty upper class accent he had worked so hard to perfect.

Leaving the donuts and coffee on a table in the large common area, she went into the kitchen to fetch cream and sugar, closing the old refrigerator with a harder-than-necessary kick.

“God, it’s hot in here,” she muttered, turning the air conditioning down to sixty-eight. They complained if it went any lower, but after living in the South for twelve years, Georgie had grown used to frigid air. This place was stifling in more ways than one.

She took a good look at the big, open room full of beat-up round tables and orange folding chairs to make sure everything was where it belonged before the daily invasion began. In one corner, her mother had arranged sofas around a big-screen TV where the women enjoyed morning talk shows and the men watched afternoon Red Sox games. Off the far end of the main room, a hallway led to the office.

Georgie remembered her mother battling the city council for the money to buy the TV. Somehow Nancy always managed to find what she needed to keep the center going—like the hideous orange chairs that had been donated by the Elks Lodge after they bought new ones. The only decorations were the scenic Newport posters on the wall. So while the place wasn’t pretty, it got the job done. And where Georgie was used to stylish, here she was stuck with serviceable.

The front door swung open, and Georgie suppressed a groan. Five more minutes of peace. Please. But it was not to be. In walked Gus Souza, or Good Gus, as they called him to distinguish him from the other Gus at the center. Of all the old men, Good Gus was Georgie’s favorite. He always had a warm smile and a friendly greeting for her, and unlike the others, he didn’t hit on her or make inappropriate comments about her body, her hair, her smile, her dimples, her clothes, or anything else they could think of. Nothing was off limits.

“Morning, Gus.”

“Hi there, Georgie. How are you today?”

“Same as yesterday.” Since they had the exact conversation every day, she could have written the script.

His snow-white hair was combed back off his cherubic face. Even at seventy-six, his blue eyes were still bright and animated. Once he had told her about his proud military service during “the war,” which meant Korea or Vietnam with this crowd, and his long career as a car dealer and entrepreneur.

“Georgie, I wondered . . .”

Satisfied with the display of coffee and donuts, she turned to him.

“I hate to ask because I know you’re inundated with requests.”

“What’s up, Gus?”

“Do you think you could call Blue Cross for me today? I can’t hear them on the phone, and I got this notice that says they denied my claim.”

He was so cute and so sweet, how could she say no? “Of course,” she said with a sigh she knew he couldn’t hear. “I’d be happy to.”

His face lifted into a relieved smile. He had children somewhere, but from what the others told her, he didn’t see much of them, which was their loss. She heard he played Santa the previous Christmas when the seniors invited their grandchildren to the center. Georgie could picture him pulling it off with his easy charm. She took the denial of payment notice from him, wrote down his date of birth and the social security number she’d learned she would need to gain access to his account, and promised to get back to him before the end of the day.

“Thank you, honey.” He reached out to squeeze her arm. “Your mother was so proud of you for stepping up for us the way you have.”

Mortified by her emotional response to the compliment, Georgie mumbled, “Thank you,” and escaped to her office at the end of the hallway before she could embarrass herself by bawling all over poor Gus.

The morning flew by as she attended to a number of crises, broke up an argument over who was prettier—Angelina Jolie or Farrah Fawcett in her prime—waited on hold for twenty minutes with Blue Cross to find out that Gus had failed to notify his primary care provider that he was seeing an “out of network” doctor for his prostate cancer follow-up—info she could have lived without knowing—and helped the kitchen staff dole out more than one hundred servings of breaded flounder with baby red potatoes and asparagus.

The smell of fish permeated the center, and Georgie fought off a gag as she went around the common room collecting the used Styrofoam lunch trays into a big garbage bag. On her way past their table, she heard Bad Gus, Gus Richards, telling a filthy joke about a woman, a goat, a bucket, and something else Georgie chose not to stick around to hear. The other old men gathered around him at the table—Walter Brown, Henry Stevens, Bill Bradley, Good Gus, and the oldest of the regulars, Donald Davis—hung on his every word. Their guffaws at the raunchy punch line followed Georgie out the back door to the Dumpster.

Stinking of flounder and vinegar that had somehow splashed onto her shirt, she wrestled with the top of the big Dumpster but couldn’t get it open. Sweat ran down her face as she gave one last heroic but unsuccessful attempt to get the lid open. Defeated, she slid open the side door and took a step back when the stench of yesterday’s Salisbury steak smacked her in the face.

Since the garbage bag wouldn’t fit through the smaller opening, she gritted her teeth, reached into it, and, dreaming of Lancôme and Clinique and Donna Karan and Jones New York, she grabbed a handful of smelly Styrofoam and jammed it into the Dumpster. She was on her third handful when the slam of a car door startled her.

“Hey! What’re you doing? That stuff is recyclable!”

Georgie whirled around and almost passed out from the shock. Him! Jogger Guy! He wore a crisp dress shirt with pressed khakis and a glare in his deep blue eyes.

Taking the garbage bag from her, he peered inside and winced. “Are you aware that Styrofoam neverbreaks down? It’ll still be sitting in the landfill when your great grandchildren become grandparents.”

Georgie stared at him, unable to breathe, let alone form a coherent word. Apparently, he had the same effect on her when he was outraged as he did when he ran by the house dripping with sweat.

“Where’s your recycling Dumpster?”

“We, um, don’t have one,” she sputtered.

“Are you kidding me?” His face got very red. “You jam all this Styrofoam into a regular Dumpsterevery day? Oh my God!”

Wiping away a piece of flounder that had somehow gotten stuck to her cheek, she felt the surge coming and couldn’t stop it. It was only two o’clock, but she’d already had more than enough of this day. She burst into tears.

He stared at her, seeming shocked by her emotional reaction.

“What’s going on here?” Bad Gus demanded from the doorway. The other old men followed him as he pushed Jogger Guy out of the way and put his arm around Georgie.

“What did you do to her?” Walter asked, invading Jogger Guy’s personal space.

“Nothing,” he insisted. “I asked her why she wasn’t recycling all this Styrofoam.”

Georgie’s tears descended into deep, gulping sobs that had little to do with garbage and everything to do with months of unbearable stress.

Good Gus took over from Bad Gus, leading Georgie into her office while whispering gentle words of comfort. The others made a barricade at the door to keep out Jogger Guy, who had followed them.

“There, there, now Georgie, honey.” Good Gus squatted next to her, offered his monogrammed handkerchief, and gripped her hand. “Someone get her a glass of water.”

“I’ve got it.” Pushing past Jogger Guy, Bill stopped all of a sudden and eyed the younger man with suspicion. “Where do I know you from?”

“I work with your daughter.”

“You’re a cop?”

“Detective Nathan Caldwell, Newport Police Department.” He extended his hand. “I’ve seen you around the station with Roxy.”

Because he was too polite not to, Bill shook Nathan’s hand while continuing to give him the once-over. “You made Georgie cry. We don’t care for that.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I was just driving by, and I saw her—”

“It’s not me you need to apologize to, young feller.” Bill nodded toward Georgie, who was still mopping up the torrent of tears.

The men parted to let Nathan through.

Good Gus stood up but didn’t leave his post at Georgie’s side.

They waited expectantly.

“I’m sorry I yelled at you,” Nathan said.

If he’d had a hat, it would have been twisting in his hands. The old men could be intimidating when they wanted to be, a discovery Georgie found intriguing—and endearing.

“It’s okay,” she said, mortified by the entire episode.

“I was just wondering why you don’t recycle,” he mumbled.

“My mother requested a recycling Dumpster from the city a year ago.” Georgie gestured to the stack of paper on the cluttered desk. “There’s a copy of the form here somewhere. Apparently, she didn’t get anywhere.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Nathan said.

“So go arrest someone at City Hall,” Bad Gus growled. “And stop picking on Georgie.”

“I wasn’t picking on her—”

“You can move along now, son.” Walter tugged on Nathan’s arm to lead him from the office. “We’ll take care of her.”

“I really am sorry,” Nathan said. “I didn’t mean to upset you.” On his way out, he brushed past Walter and Bill, who was returning with the glass of water.

“I’m okay, you guys,” Georgie insisted. “I’m sorry to make such a scene.”

“You have nothing to be sorry about,” Good Gus said.

Georgie took a long sip of water. “Thanks. Go on back to your game. I’m fine. Really.”

They began to filter back into the common room for their afternoon round of Euchre, a card game Bill had imported to Rhode Island from Minnesota. Good Gus lingered. “Are you sure you’re all right? It’s not like you to break down like that.”

“I miss my mom,” she said, knowing she could confide in him and it wouldn’t be all over the center in ten minutes.

His face softened. “Of course you do, honey.”

“And to add insult to injury, my boyfriend in Atlanta dumped me this morning.”

“What? Is he crazy? I’ll tell you what,” Gus huffed, “if I was thirty years younger, why I’d court you myself. He’s a fool.”

Amused by his righteous indignation, Georgie smiled. “I’d be honored to be courted by such a lovely gentleman.”

“Don’t you worry. You’ll meet a nice young man in no time. Once the word gets out that you’re on the market, we’ll have to beat them off with a stick. Heck, Walter is ready to run away with you the minute you say the word.”

Smiling, she got up to hug him. “Do me a favor and don’t put out the word, okay?”

“Sure thing,” he said, returning her embrace and kissing her forehead. “Your secret is safe with me. I’ll let you get back to work, but we’re right out there if you need us.” He headed for the door.

“Gus?”

Turning back, he raised a white eyebrow.

“Thank you. Tell the others, too.”

“Our pleasure, honey.”

When she was alone, Georgie dropped her head onto her folded arms and took a deep, rattling breath. So embarrassing. Flipping out over trash of all things. What he must think of her. Nathan Caldwell. It was a nice name that suited him. Too bad he’d gone and ruined all her fantasies by being a jerk. Now what would she have to look forward to every day?

A cloud of depression hung over her as she slugged through the rest of the day. Closing the center at the stroke of six, she felt bad—as she did every day—ushering the last few stragglers to the door, knowing many of them wouldn’t see or talk to another living soul until they returned the next morning. They were why she kept coming back every day, despite her overwhelming desire to be anywhere else.

After an hour of paperwork, she walked through the heavy humidity to her car.
Parallel parking in front of the house a short time later, Georgie focused on what to have for dinner and the things she needed to get done that night—including laundry and a list of her mother’s assets for the probate attorney.

She came to an abrupt halt at the sight of a huge arrangement of fragrant, festive lilies sitting on the porch. With a glance around to see if anyone was watching, she went up the stairs, her heart heavy with dread. How predictable of Doug to do something like this. He’d probably had his secretary order the consolation bouquet. So sorry to dump you, she imagined the card would say. Have a nice life. Love, Doug. She plucked the envelope from among the flowers.

Inside she found a card describing the eco-friendly environment the flowers had been grown in.That’s odd. What does Doug care about that? Reading the message, her heart skipped a crazy beat. “Sorry I made you cry. Forgive me? Nate Caldwell.”

“Oh,” she gasped, turning to find Jogger Guy, still fresh and polished in his work clothes, standing in the street watching her with his hands jammed into his pockets. Tongue-tied, she stared at him.
He made his way toward her. “Do not cry,” he ordered, softening his tone when he added, “Please don’t.”

“I won’t.” The stink of flounder clung to her clothes and hair as he reached the bottom step and looked up at her with startling blue eyes. “How did you know where I live?” He’d seemed so intent during his runs that she was certain he hadn’t paid much attention to them drooling over him from the porch.

“I’m a detective,” he said with a smug expression.

“Oh, so you just, like, tracked me down?” she asked, not sure how she felt about that.

He grinned, causing his tanned, handsome face to crinkle in all the best ways.

Her heart pounded. God, he was hot and not as much of a jerk, apparently, as she had thought earlier.

“Actually, I run by here every morning and recognized you.”

“We didn’t think you ever looked,” she said, quickly adding, “not that we’ve discussed you or anything.” She was babbling. She knew it but was powerless to stop it. Why did this particular guy have this particular effect on her?

“I’ve taken an occasional peek. Running in this neighborhood has become much more interesting since you ladies moved in. Are you new in town?”

“I grew up here. My roommate Cat is also from here. Tess is from Connecticut.”

“Which one has the spiky red hair?”

“That’d be Cat.”

“Wasn’t there another one? I seem to remember four of you.”

“Oh, that was my sister, Ali. She’s gone home to New York.” Georgie wondered if he could smell the flounder from where he stood on the sidewalk. Fortunately, the lilies were putting out a powerful perfume that she hoped was strong enough to do battle with the fish stench.

He glanced at the flowers. “So what do you say?”

“About?”

“Forgive me?”

Why do you care? she wanted to ask but didn’t. “Of course. Thank you for the flowers. They’re gorgeous.”

“You’re welcome. Since I’m not in the practice of making pretty girls cry, I needed to make it up to you.”

Did he just call me pretty? Looking like a frump and stinking like fish? Georgie ran a self-conscious hand through her rumpled hair and yearned for the shower. “Well, thanks again for the flowers.” She reached down to pick them up off the porch. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“Yes, I did. Are you free for dinner?”

Stunned, she could only stare at him from behind the huge bouquet while wondering if her mouth was actually hanging open with surprise or if it just felt that way.

“Hello?” He waved a hand. “Georgie?”

“Um, I . . .”

“You what?”

“I stink. Like flounder. Today’s lunch special.”

He tossed his golden head back and laughed. “I can wait while you clean up. But if you don’t want to go out with someone who made you cry, I’d understand.”

Studying him, she remembered the list of things she had planned to do that night, but suddenly none of it was at all appealing when stacked up against him. Why the hell not? After all, Doug did say we should see other people, right? And I like what I’m seeing… “Are you sure you don’t mind waiting?”

He gestured for her to go for it, and she turned toward the house, stopping at the front door. “Do you, um, want to come in?”

“I’ll wait for you out here.” He strolled up the stairs and plopped down on the porch sofa.
Georgie wondered if it was a coincidence that he picked the very spot where she watched for him each morning. “I’ll be just a few minutes.”

“Take your time.” He put his head back and closed his eyes.

She studied him in all his exquisite beauty for a long moment before she went inside, stashed the flowers on a table, and bolted for the stairs, withdrawing her cell phone from her pocket as she went.

“Come on, come on, pick up,” she whispered as she waited for Cat to answer her cell phone.

“Hello?”

“Oh, thank God you answered.”

“Georgie? What’s wrong?”

Georgie could hear loud music and voices in the background at Club Underground where Cat was the manager. “You’re not going to believe who I’m having dinner with tonight.”

“Don’t tell me you finally agreed to go out with that old guy, Walter. That’s just so wrong.”

“No, no! The jogger guy.”

“No way!” Cat said with a loud whistle. “No freaking way! How’d you meet him?”

Georgie gave Cat an abbreviated version of the story. “He’s waiting for me on the porch.”

“Then what the hell are you doing calling me?”

“I was flipping out and needed to tell someone.”

“What’s he look like in clothes?”

“Amazing,” Georgie said with a sigh, remembering the way his pale blue shirt had magnified his already glorious eyes as he looked up at her from the street.

“I’m going to need you to take notes—copious notes—so you don’t forget to tell us everything, do you hear? I know I speak for Tess when I say we’ll want every, single, salacious detail.”

“We’re going to dinner, not having sex,” Georgie said dryly as she worked around the phone to peel off her clothes.

“If there’s ever been a time in your life for first-date sex, this is it. Might be just what you need to take your mind off everything.”

“Not happening. I’ve got to go. I told him I’d be quick.”

Cat snorted. “You? Quick in the shower? I hope he’s not hungry.”

“Bye, Cat.”

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Cat said, laughing. “I’m so jealous!”

“Hanging up now.”

“Take condoms! There’s a box in my bedside drawer.”

“I’m in the shower. Can’t hear you!” Georgie cut the connection, tossed her phone onto the vanity, and got busy scrubbing off the eau de flounder.

Twenty-five minutes later, she had dried her hair, done her best with a mascara wand and lip liner, tried on almost everything in her closet, and created a complete disaster in her bedroom. Just so she wouldn’t be tempted to take Cat’s advice, she purposely wore underwear that didn’t match—purple polka dot bikini panties and a yellow bra.

She was beginning to sweat by the time she finally tugged on a sundress that could have used ironing, slid her feet into a pair of flip-flops, grabbed her purse, and headed for the stairs before she could change her mind about her clothes—again.

Everything felt wrong and out of whack, she thought with irritation as she clomped down the stairs. A date like this required significant preparation—including a manicure, pedicure and waxing—not half an hour and no consultation on proper attire with women whose opinions she trusted. Feeling like she was at a significant disadvantage and once again bemoaning the loss of her untroubled, stylish life in Atlanta, she pushed open the screen door to the porch and announced, “Ready,” in what she hoped was a breezy, it-was-no-big-deal-to-look-this-good tone.
Sprawled out on the wicker sofa, Nathan was sound asleep.